Kessel scored a beauty in regulation and James van Riemsdyk contributed the shootout decider Friday night as Toronto scored a 2-1 win over the New Jersey Devils.
Kessel's goal, which opened the scoring, came on an eye-popping solo rush as the Leafs sniper skated through two Devils in the defensive zone before beating Cory Schneider between the legs at 8:12 of the third period. Kessel's 10th goal of the season ended a Toronto scoreless stretch of almost 110 minutes.
"Those are difference-maker goals," Carlyle said of Kessel's swooping rush. "It reminded me of Frank Mahovlich — the windup, to come back inside your own (blue-)line and attack. That's old-time hockey. I mean real old-time hockey."
Asked if he knew who Mahovlich — a mega-star from another era who played for the Leafs, Red Wings and Canadiens — was, Kessel later replied: "Not really."
Of course the 26-year-old American was born six years after the Big M entered the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1981. Mahovlich, now 75, later moved his field of play to the Senate, an arena most Canadians ignore.
It looked like the Kessel goal might be enough until Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier, who had been excellent hitherto, seemed to misplay a shot from the right flank from Michael Ryder, with the puck angling high off the goalie's stick into the net at 15:15. Ryder got credit for his fifth of the season.
"I'm probably going to do that play a hundred times and, I don't know, if you ask me to do it again I probably wouldn't be able to," Bernier lamented.
Kessel was in the box, with 11 second left for a slashing penalty.
"Those thing happens in hockey," Carlyle said of the Bernier miscue. "There wasn't a person in the building who felt as bad as he did about giving it up. You could just see his reaction. But I thought our bench remained composed. We gathered our composure and we didn't sit back, we attacked. And we didn't stop."
Added Bernier: "We showed character. We came back and won that game. It was a great team effort."
Schneider, who also had a strong game, made a great save on Kessel on a Leafs' three-on-one in an exciting overtime. And he stopped Toronto's Mason Raymond and Kessel before van Riemsdyk's goal in the shootout. Adam Henrique then fired wide for the Devils.
Bernier stopped Ryder in the shootout while Travis Zajac had the Leafs goalie beat but hit the post.
With the victory, Toronto heads to Boston for a Saturday night showdown with the Bruins team that ousted from the playoffs last season with an unlikely Game 7 comeback.
Toronto (11-5-0) has now won five of its last seven. The Leafs were well-rested, having not played since a 4-0 loss in Vancouver last Saturday.
The Devils (4-7-5) were coming off a 3-0 win in Philadelphia on Thursday, with Martin Brodeur posting a 22-save shutout — the 122nd of his career. New Jersey had lost its two previous games, both shutouts.
"I'm disappointed we didn't capitalize on our chances," said Devils coach Peter DeBoer. "We got a bounce there at the end to get a point. We had enough chances to win the game. We didn't finish enough."
The Leafs' power play, which came into the game fifth in the league, had failed on four previous man-advantage opportunities in the game prior to the Kessel goal. And the Leafs star had been guilty of several giveaways.
The 2013 Hockey Hall of Fame Game, which drew a crowd of 19,377 that included Prime Minister Stephen Harper, featured pre-game appearances by former Devils Scott Niedermayer and Brendan Shanahan as well as Chris Chelios and Geraldine Heaney. The late Fred Shero will also be inducted as part of the class of 2013 on Monday.
With centres Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland both injured, van Riemsdyk shifted from wing to centre Joffrey Lupul and Kessel on Toronto's top line.
Van Riemsdyk, whose last duty at centre was at the University of New Hampshire, failed to get a shot on net but his linemates combined for 12 of Toronto's 28 on the night.
At times the line overelaborated, especially with the Devils in the penalty box. But it paid dividends when it counted.
Bernier, who stopped 41 of 43 shots in Calgary last time out, had to be sharp to keep the Leafs in it as Toronto was outshot 35-28 — the 13th straight game and 14th in 16 this season that the opposition has outshot the Leafs.
Former Devil David Clarkson almost scored on the Leafs' first shot, cruising in from the slot while protecting the puck from a New Jersey defenceman. His shot got past Schneider but a Devil poked it away before it could trickle over the line.
Toronto had several glorious chances to go ahead on a power play late in the first period that started with a four-minute high-sticking penalty to New Jersey's Mattias Tedenby and turned into a 44-second five-on-three when Peter Harrold was called for tripping.
The Leafs came very close but could not take advantage.
Clarkson, meanwhile, renewed acquaintances by trading hacks with defenceman Marek Zidlicky after a stoppage.
Toronto had a sluggish start to the second period with an overly elaborate Kessel continuing to give the puck away. Bernier had to be sharp on several occasions as Toronto, after outshooting the Devils 8-7 in the first period, was outshot 15-8 in the second.
Devils forward Stephen Gionta was helped off the ice in the second period after sliding awkwardly into the boards.
Hard-nosed Toronto forward Colton Orr, who missed the morning skate in what was deemed a "maintenance morning," did not play. Instead the Leafs dressed seven defenceman with Mark Fraser returning from injury.